long . lines and ripples

The People Speak

I came across an old copy of Studs Terkel's Division Street: America last week:

Division Street - Front Cover
Division Street - Back Cover

In the introduction, Terkel writes that the book is looking for something that didn't exist, or had already become discredited, when he did the fieldwork for the book in the mid-1960s. This discredited thing was a common experience across Chicago. More broadly, Turkel wanted to inquire into a common experience across the United States. The title reflects how even Terkel himself doesn't know how to talk about what that would look like. He writes:

"Although there is a Division Street in Chicago, the title is metaphorical"

Studs Terkel, Division Street: America (Preface, page XXV)

What he wants is a street where all manner of Chicago's people mix together--even as he knows that this street doesn't exist:

On undertaking this assignment, I immediately called Dr. Philip Hauser, former chairman of the University of Chicago's Sociology Department, one of the country's best informed demographers. Is there a street in Chicago today where all manner of ethnic, racial and income groups live? His reply-though a blow-was not unexpected. There is none. As late as twenty five years ago [i.e., the early 1940s], Halsted Street may have encompassed all these peoples. There is a quarter-mile radius on the Near North Side of the city that might fit these specifications; upper-middle-income high-rise complexes have sprung up with startling suddenness in the rooming-house heartland. They are adjacent to one another, at this moment. Still, the area I was seeking was a matter of conjecture, even here. The nomadic, transient nature of contemporary life had made diffusion the order-or disorder-of the city. The bulldozer and the wrecking ball have played their roles.


Notice that Terkel blames "transience" and "diffusion" as the culprits for the disappearance of public spaces where mixed groups of people live, work and/or socialize. Transience suggests that even the achievement of a common space would be fragile; no force in American life tends to the construction of common spaces. Terkel guesses that something approaching common space happened on Halsted Street, which crosses Division, for a while, when different groups were "adjacent to one another."

Division and Halsted Street (right of picture), Chicago, 1956 (view looks southeast)
Source: Flickr, UIC Library Digital Collections (Creative Commons License)

"Diffusion" is a metaphor from physics and chemistry, referring to a movement of particles from higher to lower-density space. Hindsight across the rest of the twentieth century points to the post-war suburban exodus from the cities, "white flight" and other such shorthands for the American "big sort" (I use this term in a broader and more generic sense than the original author of that term) that broke apart the messier versions of early-20th century American city--although it's not clear that Terkel meant any of these things.

What keeps a community together? Even if if diverse and representative communities are rare, Terkel seems more certain that common experience is the basis of these communities. And he thinks that once existed.

Read the explanation of how he got the idea for Division Street. It was inspired by a then-recent study of Chinese culture, published in English in 1965:

Andre Schiffrin, on publishing the American edition of Jan Mrydal's Report from a Chinese Village1, wondered whether a similar communication might not be forthcoming from an American "village." It was a fascinating challenge. A Chinese village, an American city: why not? I had expected difficulties, of course, but none as formidable as the ones I actually experienced. The problems were not posed by the people I encountered. There was a shyness in many cases, in others a strange eagerness, but always a friendliness-once a few ground rules were established. The problem was the nature of the city itself. And the time in which we live.


What Terkel took from the Myrdal report is that the so-called "villagers" of his China study shared a common mental reference library, connected to the events of the Cultural Revolution:

In China, there was a specific you-can-put-your-hand-on-it event, the Revolution. The lives of the people, which Mr. Mrydal recorded with such profound understanding were lived by his informants Before and After. They had criteria for comparison, their own experiences: the lot, Before and After. What have we here? A triple revolution occurring now.


Terkel's question at the end gives an idea of where he is going with this. The "triple" revolution he cites but never fully explains is the breakup of common references among the three temporal categories: past, present, future.

There is a vague, uneasy-and in some fewer instances, exhilarating-awareness of the events. There is no Before or After. Perhaps, World War II was the great divide. Yet none of these Americans experienced Auschwitz or Hiroshima, its two most indelible mementoes. The several tattoo wearers I met had the exquisite legends voluntarily needled onto their arms. For the relatively few, popularly known as "bleeding hearts" (the frequent use of this phrase has always fascinated me a whetted my curiosity about the user), who sense the agony of others and thus their own tortured morality, there is a Before: pre-World War II and pre-H-bomb. They are the exception rather than the rule. So if there is no sense of before for most Americans (some of the subjects vividly recalled the Depression; it was personally experienced), how can there be a sense of After? Or a sense of Now, for that matter?2


Common experience has fallen apart in America, but I cannot find where Terkel explains why that is. The Chinese had a big, national event in their "Cultural Revolution," one that touched everyone in some way. Is this lacking in America?

Perhaps Terkel in 1967 thinks that nothing truly national, on the scale of a Cultural Revolution, had happened in America after World War II. Yet he published Division Street toward the more chaotic end of a defining decade in American history: after the Kennedy assassination (1963) but before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968). Racial protests and race riots already had happened or would be happening soon. Did Terkel publish his book too soon? Was he not looking around enough? Did he put too much stock in the vagary of individual reports, and fail to consider historical trends?3 Individualism, as a method if not a philosophy, is what he falls back on:

It finally came down to individuals, no matter where in the city or its environs they lived.


It is worth taking the time to assess what Terkel does document in his interview subjects, what he claims to find in the place of common experience: cynicism and hopelessness.

Another recurring theme, to put it harshly and, perhaps, cruelly: the cop-out. "What can I do? Nothing." This plea of individual impotence had ironic overtones. It was voiced more frequently by those who called for a national show of potency and indeed, violence, than by the fewer others. Each of the subjects may have come to his belief or lack of it in his own ornery way; yet evidence seems overwhelming that mass media, with their daily litany of tribute to things rather than men, played their wondrous role.


Discarding Terkel's jabs at "mass media" (today it is just called "the media"), the public mood of 2020 seems neither cynical nor hopeless. But the credibility of common experience as a basis of national community has receded further. Today public conversations about the commons are more institutionalist, and more process-oriented. In place of common experience, there is a demand for common treatment, common opportunity, and (sometimes) common outcomes across the individual life-course. The acceptance of a breakdown of the commons is one stop on the way to a broader distribution of public and private resources (money, attention, power). Terkel bemoans that he has come up with only a grab-bag collection of individual experiences, but today the experience of individuals is expected to reveal exclusivity, or rather exclusion: from media, institutions, government and industry.

Experience is now radically, unbridgeably different, and the search for common experience is more often understood to be subtractive, not creative. The specifics of individual experience and identity, especially the claims of identity-based experience on exclusive institutions, have come to dominate lamentations over a lost common experience. For example, the debate over "systemic" racism is founded on the belief that even if this system is unjust and must be abolished, some kind of system must still exist to attend to the claims of distinct experience groups. The task is to build a system that is fully responsive to differences that are expected to persist.

But if the public conversation now aspires to a common experience, I would argue that this standard is defined by the supposedly "luckiest," most affluent people who live in the present day:

Today, the desire for common experience has become a search for common capabilities and the conditions to realize them. And it seeks to distribute them as broadly as possible.

  1. Myrdal, a Swedish journalist with no significant prior expertise on China, lived for a month in the northern city of Yan'an in the early 1960s, in an attempt to document the ordinary understanding of China's developing communist society.[]
  2. Another anecdote from a bar that Terkel cites to illustrate the breakdown of common experience: "A good fifteen years ago, Big Bill Broonzy, or greatest interpreter of country blues, was singing "Plow Hand Blues." The young in his audience walked out on him. There had been a noticeable scraping of chairs as the hipsters, cool and heavy-lidded, took to the pleasant air. Black and white together, they were not quite overcome. As Bill explained it over a bourbon: why should they listen to this old blues? To them it's horse-and-buggy music. They never plowed no Johnson grass. They never had no mule die on them. Take me and the Bomb. People I met in Europe, they seen homes and family go. What do I know about the Bomb? The only bomb I seen was in the pictures. You gotta live through it to feel it," xx-xxi[]
  3. Perhaps Terkel's Division Street is an early member of the broad pop-sociological tradition on cultural and psychological atomism that would later include Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart and Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone.[]


Studs Terkel, Division Street America. The New Press, 2006 [1967].